Where to go to college?
Learning what is a “yes” and what is a “no” is often more art than science, a gut feeling or a sixth sense that something is a fit. It is also a luxury – there are many college students who either do not realize that they are choosing a path of “no” when they leave high school, or who realize that they are not choosing a “yes,” but follow that path anyway, either due to outside forces or a lack of other options.
Understanding what is a “yes” and what is a “no” is arguably the most important future planning a high school student can undertake – including understanding where to go to college. As a school counselor I am asked nearly constantly about “enough”:
Do I have “enough” AP classes?
Is my schedule rigorous “enough”?
Am I doing “enough” activities?
As these questions swirl, I push back, with my own questions:
Do you think you will enjoy the advanced classes you have chosen?
Will you have time to balance school with life with this class schedule?
Are you involved in an activity that is meaningful and fulfilling to you?
The process of applying to college is all-too-often seen as a finish line, rather than a starting line. Indeed, there is almost no real benefit to being accepted to colleges – regardless of the name. The benefits of college come as you seek to get something out of your college experience.
The Best Laid Plans
I did not set out to be a high school counselor. I really didn’t even think I was going to be a teacher. But applying to Teach for America was an appealing option to my 21-year-old, history-major-self, so I did. And while I struggled with the “schmooze” of corporate interviews and often bungled the case studies at different consulting companies, I immediately felt at home teaching my three minute “lesson” to a room full of other college students (and a few other adults seeking a second – or third – career).
And after being placed as a secondary social studies teacher in San Jose, California, I went to grad school, teaching all day, and going to school several evenings a week for years. First for my teaching credential, and then, I thought, to get a Masters in Teaching. But the first week of classes in my Masters in History Education program, I had a change of heart – and a change of “major” – and instead enrolled in a School Counselor cohort program in partnership with my school district.
That cohort experience cemented by commitment to the field of counseling, but also made it difficult to look away from the egregious administrative decisions being made in the district at the time. Though I dug in with the school community – serving on committees and councils, assuming a leadership role before the ink was dry on my counseling credential – my work was not valued by my supervisors.
So I became a teacher. Again.
Which helped me see how much I thrived as a counselor.
I’m not a bad teacher, but I’m a better counselor.
You have to understand the “no” to realize what is a “yes.”
In (affiliate link) The Price You Pay for College, Ron Leiber puts forth three reasons that explain why most individuals attend college: the curriculum or learning experience, the community or connections you build, and the certificate, degree or other outward signs of completion.
Don’t over-focus on the piece of paper
While many families may focus on the third aspect, it is the other two areas where teens can more easily gauge what is a “yes” and what is a “no.” The vast majority of first-time freshmen are seeking a Bachelor’s degree in some form. Sure a few may know for certain that a B.Arch. or a B.F.A. is in the future. Others may apply for dual degree programs which springboard into Masters degrees, or MD programs. But there are few who head to college campuses who plan to hang out for a few years and then move on, regardless of whether or not they have any sort of certification.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that a minority of adults work in fields directly related to their college major. There is more to college than the degree.
The forces that keep a student in college typically have much more to do with curriculum and community than they do with certificates and degrees. So when considering where to go to college, consider the curriculum and the community as key parts of the decision.
Let’s start with the curriculum. Most colleges and universities, even those of small-to-moderate size, have course catalogs that dwarf those of even the largest high schools in the country. It is the rare college freshman who has had concrete experience with the vast majority of curricular areas they are likely to encounter in college. What this means is that high school students who intend to attend college should explore many possible learning opportunities- both formal and informal – in order to help them arrive at a range of options that could be in the “yes” category.
Exposure is key. If entire courses are not available in anthropology or engineering, then use museums to explore these areas. If film or landscape design is not a school-based option, then look for camps, contests, or locals working in the field. Experiences don’t have to – and arguably shouldn’t – cost a lot to help students gain exposure to a possible major and career pathway.
I frequently reflect on the experiences of a student I worked with many years ago. He built his college list in the spring of his junior year, as many students do, and as an self-proclaimed animal-lover, he focused entirely on pre-veterinary programs. That summer he volunteered at an animal hospital for the first time. Though he emerged from the summer with his strong love of animals intact, his interest in being a vet was extinguished. Just a few weeks spent with sick, injured, and dying animals taught more than any career inventory or college website could have. Needless to say, his college list was revised entirely that fall.
Community & Connection
The college community can be difficult to quantify. I put great stock in the “gut feeling” on this – which means my heart goes out to the many, many students in the Class of 2020 and 2021 who have not had significant opportunities to understand campus communities by spending time there. Though it is likely that future classes will regain this ability, the treasure trove of virtual tours will not disappear – and there is much to be gleaned from your gut feeling in viewing those as well.
Additionally, try to connect with current students, and ask alumni if they would attend their alma mater again. This second idea has become a pandemic conversation-starter for us as I support my own high school freshman in understanding the characteristics of various colleges and universities. (The other question we ask, based on curriculum and learning is, “What did you learn in college that you use on a regular basis today?” These two questions have been our lockdown version of the informal college tours that have not been possible in the past year.)
So what did you want to get out of your college experience? And what did you actually walk away with? Not everything can be planned, but much can be explored when you move beyond the names, and focus on the characteristics. Most high school students also identify some sort of geographic or location-based preferences as well. So whether you have a teen who prefers urban living with four seasons, or outdoor-focused, small-town living with year-round warmth, if you layer these preferences alongside their “yes” and “no” votes in terms of curriculum and community, the college list will begin to build itself.
Where to go to college? In so many ways the answer is to find a place where you find more in YOUR “yes” column than in your “no” column – and chances are that place will provide you both a curriculum and community that will serve you well.